A new academic year is upon us. Students, parents, and faculty are excited. But they are also nervous. These are difficult times for higher education in America. At all but the nation's top colleges and universities, enrollments are down and budgets are strapped. Many explanations have been offered about why higher education is floundering: wasteful administrative bloat and a reckless construction frenzy make almost every critics' list. Rightly so. After all, how many assistant deans and new athletic fields does a college really need? Far fewer than academic bureaucrats seem to think, in my humble opinion.
The heavy-headed use of racial and ethnic preferences in student admissions, financial aid, and faculty hiring is also to blame, but almost nobody ever mentions that. The explanation for the conspiracy of silence about affirmative action is easy to identify: As this year's entering class will quickly learn, higher education is dominated by the Left and racial preferences are the sacred cow of the Left. Worse yet, critics of racial preferences are often retaliated against in both subtle and not so subtle ways. (Opposition to preferential treatment is not well received at faculty meetings, to put it mildly.)
The term "affirmative action" originated with an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy on March 6, 1961 that was designed to promote non-discrimination in the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson took the next major step when he issued an executive order of his own in 1965 that required government employers to take "affirmative action" to "hire without regard to race, religion and national origin." Gender was added to the anti-discrimination list in 1967.
Fast forward five decades and, to borrow a line from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, "We're not in Kansas any more." Bluntly stated, there is systematic discrimination in all three categories of affirmative action in higher education: admissions, financial assistance, and faculty hiring. Indeed, the people of Michigan were reacting to that discrimination when they amended the Michigan constitution in 2006 to forbid preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin in education, public employment, and contracting. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 6 to 2, in April in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action that the people of Michigan were allowed to ban preferential treatment in the state. California's Proposition 209, enacted a decade before the Michigan amendment, was motivated by similar concerns, and recent attempts to repeal it would adversely impact Asian-Americans in particular, who do extremely well in merit-based processes.
The Supreme Court has struggled for decades with how colleges and universities may use racial and ethnic preferences in admissions. At present, the law is this: (1) an institution of higher education may consider the race and ethnicity of applicants as a factor in admissions decisions for purposes of "diversity," provided that it is not used too mechanically and that all applicants are evaluated on an individualized basis; and (2) a reviewing court is not permitted to give any deference at all to the college or university when assessing the constitutionality of an admissions program.
The first point stems from the Supreme Court's 5 to 4 decision in the 2003 University of Michigan law school case. The second is from the Court's 2013 ruling in the University of Texas case. If--and it's a big "if"--lower courts abide by the Supreme Court's 2013 directive, admissions programs across the nation will start dropping like flies because race is used heavy-handedly rather than modestly on almost every occasion. If, however, lower courts continue to defer to academic institutions, the institutions will continue to dissemble and prevaricate in order to try to avoid having their illegal programs declared illegal. That happened recently on remand in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the University of Texas case. We will have to wait and see what the Supreme Court does about it.
Many colleges and universities offer diversity scholarships that are awarded on the basis of race. While the Supreme Court has said that race may be a plus factor in admissions decisions, it has never said that race can be the basis for scholarship awards once an applicant has been admitted. In the apt words of Terry Pell, the president of the Center for Individual Rights, "A scholarship awarded on the basis of race inevitably stigmatizes talented minority applicants, who come to be recognized for their race rather than their considerable academic achievements."
Facing threats of litigation and, before President Obama was elected, pressure from Washington, some colleges and universities have started opening to white students hundreds of thousands of dollars in fellowships, scholarships, and other programs initially earmarked for minorities. For example, Southern Illinois University reached a consent decree with the Justice Department during the latter years of President George W. Bush's administration to allow non-minorities and men access to graduate fellowships originally created for minorities and women, while the State University of New York made white students eligible for $6.8 million of aid in two scholarship programs also previously available just for minorities.
"They're all trying to minimize their legal exposure," Susan Sturm, a law professor at Columbia University, said about colleges and universities. Indeed the quote from Terry Pell was in response to a lawsuit that the public interest organization he heads filed against the University of Connecticut earlier this summer. The suit alleges that Pamela Swanigan was not allowed to compete for a prestigious merit-based scholarship despite being the top applicant the year she applied. Although UConn told Swanigan, who is biracial, that she had received a merit-based scholarship, it had actually changed her award to one in a less prestigious and largely segregated scholarship program intended to increase diversity. Consequently, she was deprived of the opportunity to compete for an academic award that would have benefitted her career, and she also has been forced to work multiple jobs to finish her degree. Swanigan has stated publicly that "My goal is to ensure that students are treated as individuals regardless of race and regardless of other efforts to promote racial diversity. I wanted--and still want--to compete on the basis of my academic abilities just like any other student."
Another university used to operate an academic support program that tutored white students in one room and non-white students in another room. The "rationale" for that unconscionable program was that the faculty had concluded that minority students would be "too intimidated" to speak if white classmates were in the study session with them. The segregated program was discontinued only after a brave minority student objected to it on both legal and moral grounds.
To mention one additional example in the financial assistance area, some law schools permit students to apply for a LSAC DiscoverLaw.org Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars Program only if they aren't white. At least one of the schools had the common sense to amend its applications advertisement after a law professor on the faculty complained to the president of the university about the blatant illegality of the existing advertisement.
Although the Supreme Court held in 1986's Wygant v. Jackson that it violates the Constitution's equal protection clause to prefer minority faculty over non-minority faculty in order to ensure faculty role models for minority students, academic institutions nevertheless strongly prefer minority candidates in their faculty hiring processes. As I have described previously for the National Association of Scholars under the pseudonym "Nevin Montgomery" so as to try to avoid being retaliated against for speaking truth to power, race is used much more aggressively in faculty hiring than it is in student admissions, in large part because there are far fewer faculty positions available than there are admissions slots. Several conspicuous examples come quickly to mind.
First, a friend of mine who teaches at a different law school copied me on the following email that he sent to a prominent civil rights lawyer: "Our university has offered the Law School money for an extra faculty slot, but only if the appointee is black. I know we're not alone in this, but it seems even more obviously illegal than arrangements that give preferences to minorities."
Second, the dean of a large public law school uses her law school's faculty hiring process to advance her vision of "social justice," a vision that her own faculty--as liberal as any in the country, by the way--has criticized because it has led to the virtual disqualification of every white male faculty candidate since that dean's tenure began.
Third, the dean of a small private law school (not the one at which I teach) informed me that he had "promised" the American Bar Association that he would hire only minority faculty for the next several years. Both the ABA and the Association of American Law Schools strongly encourage law schools to hire minority faculty.
Fourth, and related to the third example, a different law school was criticized by both the ABA and the AALS for not hiring enough minority faculty, even though that law school had (i) invited every minority faculty candidate listed in the AALS faculty recruitment registry to interview with the law school at the hiring conference in Washington, D.C., (ii) asked every minority faculty candidate who interviewed with the law school in D.C. to fly back to campus, all expenses paid, to interview further, and (iii) offered a job to every minority faculty candidate who accepted the invitation to visit the campus. In short, there was nothing else the law school could do to try to recruit minority faculty candidates--and what it did was illegal--but that still wasn't good enough for the accrediting bodies.
There are, I'm sure, colleges and universities that don't insist on using race, ethnicity, and gender in such a heavy-handed fashion, although I'm not aware of any. Put directly, it's difficult to imagine a worse example to set for students than that involving affirmative action practices in higher education. The Supreme Court has assumed ever since the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978 that colleges and universities are administering their affirmative action programs in good faith. It's time for the Court to acknowledge that assumption is incorrect.
To make the point another way, decisions about which students to admit, what financial aid to award, and which faculty to hire are too important for the Court to do anything but forbid altogether the use of race, ethnicity, and gender as considerations. As my father, a retired college professor and devoted husband to a strong and talented black woman, wisely put it after reading the email I quoted above about faculty hiring, "The reason great schools have great programs is because they have faculty who have a deep knowledge of their area and also add knowledge in their area. To hire faculty on any other basis is leading to the destruction of their own reputation and the quality of the product."
Who knows? If the nation's colleges and universities return to their original mission of educating students rather than trying to indoctrinate them about social causes, they might actually stop hemorrhaging money. They also finally would be in compliance with decades of unambiguous Supreme Court precedent that holds that, by law, affirmative action programs cannot be justified with arguments about rectifying past social injustices.
Texas State University student Colby Bohnannon would like you to know, it’s hard out there for a white guy.
When looking for money for college, the Iraq War veteran claims he had a hard time finding any, at least of the scholarship variety. And this, he wants you to believe, is due to the lack of such awards for white men, as opposed to the presumably substantial funds set aside for students of color. So, frustrated in his quest for white male scholarships, he’s created one, under the aegis of his new organization, the “Former Majority Association for Equality.” Get it? As in, we white folks used to be the majority, but since we’re not anymore (at least in Texas), now we’re the ones being shut out of opportunity, and in need of some affirmative action.
FMAE’s scholarships, which will amount to about $500 each, will be awarded only to white men with 3.0 grade-point-averages. Why white women are excluded from his beneficence, and why he is applying a rather bizarre blood quantum test to the awards (offering them to anyone with at least one-quarter white ancestry), remain mysteries. Especially since it would take some incredibly brain-dead math to suggest either that white men alone had ever been a majority anywhere, since displaced by the dreaded “other,” or that those with at least one white grandparent are not still a majority today, even in Texas, where large numbers of Hispanics are quite recently connected to Anglos.
But what is perfectly clear, and not at all mysterious, is the fundamental absurdity — however ubiquitous it may be among white Americans — at the heart of young mister Bohannon’s claim of racial grievance. Indeed, his notion that he was unable to secure scholarship monies because all the dough was going to people of color — in other words, to suggest as he does that money for whites like himself is crowded out by scholarships for black and brown students — indicates such a fundamental ignorance about the world of higher education that it should likely disqualify Mr. Bohannon from attending college anywhere. There are supposed to be intellectual standards, after all, even for white men.
The Facts About Scholarships for Students of Color
Though I have written about this before — and no doubt will have to again, seeing as how white victimhood arguments tend to get recycled every few years — for Mr. Bohannon’s sake, and for the sake of those who think as he does, perhaps it would do us well to remember a few things.
First, it is simply false that scholarships for people of color crowd out monies for white students. According to a national study by the General Accounting Office, less than four percent of scholarship money in the U.S. is represented by awards that consider race as a factor at all, while only 0.25 percent (one quarter of one percent) of all undergrad scholarship dollars come from awards that are restricted to persons of color alone (1). In other words, whites are fully capable of competing for and receiving any of the other monies — roughly 99.75 percent of all scholarship funds out there for college. Although this GAO study was conducted in the mid-’90s, there is little reason to expect that the numbers have changed since then. If anything, increasing backlash to affirmative action and fear of lawsuits brought by conservatives against such efforts would likely have further limited such awards as a percentage of national scholarships.
Second, it is also false that large numbers of students of color receive the benefits of race-based scholarships. In truth, only 3.5 percent of college students of color receive any scholarship even partly based on race, suggesting that such programs remain a pathetically small piece of the financial aid picture (2). So when Mr. Bohannon walks around campus and sees students of color, he may believe them all to be wards of some race-based preference scheme; yet the evidence suggests that at least 96.5 percent of them received no race-based scholarship at all.
Additionally, to suggest that race-based scholarships can in any way explain Mr. Bohannon’s own inability to find funding for school is preposterous. There is an incredibly diverse array of scholarships available for all kinds of things, that have nothing to do with academic merit alone, but are tied to various aspects of a student’s identity: scholarships for people who are left-handed, or kids whose parents sell Tupperware, or the children of horse-breeders, or descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, among many thousands of such awards (3). Although affording college education is increasingly difficult for pretty much everyone — and on this I would agree with Mr. Bohannon — if he couldn’t find scholarship monies to help defer the cost, he frankly couldn’t have been looking very hard. For instance, it took me all of 30 seconds on Google (which I’m told the young’uns can access, even in Texas), to find several such awards for Iraq War veterans like himself, as with over 400 such awards, worth up to $5000 each, offered by the Horatio Alger Association, or others provided by the Military Officer’s Association, or, for that matter, financing available from the Army College Fund, or the Montgomery G.I. Bill. Indeed, veterans may be among the most favored groups in this regard, ever since Congress decided over half-a-century ago to ease the cost of college education for those who had served in the military.
Are Minority Scholarships Unfair? The Structural Reality of White Privilege in Education
But beyond the practical matter of just how minimal an impact so-called minority scholarships have in the real world of higher education finance, even the philosophical assumptions at the heart of Mr. Bohannon’s argument — and the whites-only scholarships he’s creating — are deeply flawed.
To begin, the claim that whites are being disadvantaged by minority scholarships, even in theory, ignores the many ways in which the nation’s educational system provides unfair advantages to whites from beginning to end. It ignores the fact that the average white student in the U.S. attends school with half as many poor kids as the average black or Latino student, which in turn has a direct effect on performance, since attending a low-poverty school generally means having more resources available for direct instruction (4). Indeed, schools with high concentrations of students of color are 11-15 times more likely than mostly white schools to have high concentrations of student poverty (5). To point to minority scholarships as a source of unfairness that somehow tilts the opportunity structure too far in favor of non-white folks, is to ignore that white students are twice as likely as their African American or Latino counterparts to be taught by the most highly qualified teachers (in terms of prior preparation and specific subject certification), and half as likely to have the least qualified instructors in class (6). This too directly benefits whites, as research suggests being taught by highly qualified teachers is one of the most important factors in school achievement (7). To scream about the unfairness of minority scholarships is to ignore that long before the point of college admissions, whites are twice as likely to be placed in honors or advanced placement classes, relative to black students, and that even when academic performance would justify lower placement for whites and higher placement for blacks, it is the African American students who are disproportionately tracked low, and whites who are tracked higher (8). Indeed, schools serving mostly white students have three times as many honors or AP classes offered, per capita, as those serving mostly students of color (9).
To ignore this background context is to miss the ways in which the academic success and accomplishments of white students have been structured by unequal and preferential opportunity, and the ways in which students of color have been systematically denied the same opportunity to achieve. So although it is true that whites are excluded from 0.25 percent of the scholarship monies available for college, this cannot rationally be considered a disadvantaging factor in our lives, given the larger, ingrained and systematic advantages from which we benefit, and from which most people of color are excluded. The 0.25 percent of scholarships for students of color is literally a drop in the bucket compared to the latter.
Despite the claim that race-based scholarships for people of color amount to a double-standard (since scholarships for folks of color are considered legitimate, but white scholarships aren’t), in truth, the standard is simple, straightforward and singular: persons belonging to groups that have been systematically marginalized should have opportunities targeted to them so as to allow for the development of their full potential, which otherwise might be restricted. Special efforts to provide access and opportunity to such persons should be made, not because they are black, per se, or Latino, or whatever, but because to be a person of color has meant something in this country, and continues to mean something, in terms of one’s access to full and equal opportunity.
In effect, these are not scholarships based on race, but rather, scholarships based on a recognition of racism and how racism has shaped the opportunity structure in the U.S. Because race has been the basis for oppression, and continues to play such a large role in one’s life chances, it is perfectly legitimate to then offer scholarships on the basis of the category that triggered the oppression. On the other hand, for whites in need, it is simply not credible to contend that their disempowerment has been due to their race. Rather, whites who are economically marginalized have been so marginalized in spite of their racial status. So think of the most disempowered group of whites in the United States: Who are they? Most would probably say those from the Appalachian mountain region, in places like West Virginia or Northern Kentucky. But are those whites — who indeed are largely cut off from the larger economic opportunity structure, and are culturally isolated as well — suffering because they have been the victims of racial subordination? Of course not. Whereas people of color have been specifically targeted for discrimination because of race, such has not been the lot of even the poorest whites. So as we seek to create greater opportunity for poor whites — and I know of no one on the left who doesn’t support such efforts — we have to recognize that creating race-based programs for such folks misses the source of their disempowerment altogether, and is therefore off the mark. Scholarships for Appalachian folk (including the roughly six percent of the region’s inhabitants who are black, and suffer from regional, cultural or economic oppression) would make perfect sense. But white scholarships as a way to get at the economic marginality experienced by low-income whites makes none.
Race-Based Scholarships as a Vital Tool for Equity
If anything, American colleges and Universities should be offering more assistance to students of color than is currently the case, including so-called race-based scholarships. And the reason is simple: Even persons of color from economically stable families (in terms of occupational status, education and incomes) continue to face obstacles on the basis of race, and these deserve attention and consideration by institutions of higher education. Even when families of color are solidly middle class, for instance, their children are far more likely to attend high-poverty and low-resource schools, are more likely to be tracked low, and, when compared to whites of comparable income, face ongoing barriers to equal housing opportunity. All of these factors translate to diminished opportunities based on color, not merely economics. In other words, to merely target scholarships to those who are economically needy — regardless of race — as many recommend in their rhetoric against minority scholarships, would be to ignore the way that non-poor people of color continue to face race-based barriers to achievement and success. And because of a history of unequal access to wealth accumulation, even middle class black and brown folks with good jobs and incomes find themselves in considerably worse overall shape than comparable whites, as scholars like Thomas Shapiro, Melvin Oliver, and Dalton Conley have noted. Unless schools or private organizations that offer scholarships can develop an accurate way to pinpoint the assets and net worth profiles of the families from which their applicants come, to use only indicators like income or parental occupation as proxies for need would be to ignore the chasm-like differences between the white and black middle class, and thereby disadvantage people of color even further.
Not to mention, more than two decades of research on academic performance — especially standardized tests — has indicated that even (and especially) for middle-class, highly academically inclined students of color, the fear of confirming widespread and racist stereotypes about their ability can depress performance, despite actual ability or levels of preparation, due to increased anxiety and stress. Thus, highly capable students of color may well be missing out on traditional merit based awards, not because they are truly less capable or talented, but because of the psychological effect of racism, as a social force, on their individual academic performance, due to the widely-recognized problem of “stereotype threat.” Thus, scholarships pegged to high-achieving people of color can help balance out the effects of such a phenomenon, ensuring higher education access for those who are just as meritorious as whites, but whose on-paper credentials may have suffered through no fault of their own.
While Colby Bohannon is not likely a bad guy, let alone a racist in any overt sense, his scapegoating of minority scholarships stands as a troubling indicator of how quickly white men like himself resort to blaming racial others for their personal struggles in life. Whether it’s affirmative action, or immigration, or so-called welfare programs presumably soaking up all the tax dollars, whites have, for forty years, made a habit of looking to those darker than ourselves to explain why our lives have turned out less satisfying than we otherwise might have liked. That this scapegoating emanates from a bunch who constantly criticize people of color for claiming to be the victims of discrimination — even when the evidence of that victimization is overwhelming — would be amusing were it not so pathetic. Sadly, in an era of white racial anxiety the likes of which we have entered these past few years, it’s the kind of thing we’ll likely be seeing more and more often, facts be damned.
(1) U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994. “Information on Minority Targeted Scholarships,” B251634. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, January.
(2) Stephen L. Carter, “Color-Blind and Color-Active,” 1992. The Recorder. January 3.
(3) National Scholarship Research Service, 2002. The Scholarship Book.
(4) Judith Blau, 2004. Race in the Schools: Perpetuating White Dominance? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Press, 204.
(5) Gary Orfield, et al. 1997. “Deepening Segregation in American Public Schools: A Special Report From the Harvard Project on School Desegregation,” Equity & Excellence in Education. 30: 5-24; Valerie Martinez-Ebers, 2000. “Latino Interests in Education, Health and Criminal Justice Policy,” Political Science and Politics. September.
(6) Linda Darling-Hammond, 1998. “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education,” Brookings Review. Spring: 31.
(7) Michael K. Brown, et al. 2003. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Berkeley: University of California Press: 111; Jawanza Kunjufu, 2002. Black Students, Middle-Class Teachers. Chicago: African American Images: 57-58.
(8) Rebecca Gordon, 1998. Education and Race. Oakland: Applied Research Center: 48-9; Claude S. Fischer, et al. 1996. Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 164-5; Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, 1999. By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. NY: Dutton: 47.
(9) Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton, 1996. Dismantling Desegregation. NY: New Press: 68.
Category: Essay Archive Tags: affirmative action, deceptive data, education and racism, poverty, racial wealth gap, reverse discrimination/racism, stereotype threat, white racial resentment